All should be right with the world: I’m looking at (and listening to) a stereo amplifier sporting four KT-120 output tubes and delivering 100 watts per channel. This is a topology that delivers the fluidity and dynamic integrity that mark out the better tube designs, combined with enough power to handle real-world loudspeaker loads. And the 8120 is a Zanden amplifier, too: its cuboid form factor, and frosted acrylic front and rear panels, are both understated and ineffably stylish. Has there ever been a more attractive amplifier?
However, lingering on the horizon is a dark smudge that I just can’t ignore: with a single pair of push-pull power pentodes (or kinkless tetrodes) per channel, amps generally manage to present their considerable musical merits in cost-effective packages. They deliver a real musical bang for your bucks. Except that, as beautiful, as capable, and as flawless as this amplifier undoubtedly is, the one thing that the Zanden 8120 definitely is not, is affordable. At £19,900, you’ll do well to find another tube amp that charges this kind of money for 100, non-triode watts.
Sometimes though, no matter how familiar the ingredients might seem, great products invariably deliver more than the sum total of their parts. The Zanden is a case in point. First, at over 45kgs, the 8120 is no lightweight. Now, lift the lid – necessary to insert the four ECC82s and four KT-120s – and the amplifier’s unusual, boxy shape starts to make sense, the tube bases being mounted on a stepped steel chassis perched atop a solid block of electrical hardware. No wonder the 8120 seems so dense – there’s virtually no air inside.
Despite its conventional topology, with a phase splitter feeding a gain stage that’s directly coupled to the output tubes, the sheer bulk gives you some idea of just how much hardware has gone into the power supply, which features film-caps throughout and multiple stages of choke regulation. In addition, considerable effort has been expended on shielding the signal path, while Zanden also makes use of a high-tech, high-frequency absorbent material to further protect the audio signal from external interference. Standard inputs are single-ended RCAs, although you can specify balanced XLR’s as a £995 cost option. The output stage employs a factory set bias voltage, which guarantees maximum power output, but also means that – unlike some superficially similar amps – you cannot substitute ‘equivalent’ tubes, such as KT88s or 6550s. Finally, the 8120 is also available with source switching and a volume control, in the shape of the 6000 integrated amp.
Zanden’s products have always had an uncanny ability to fasten onto the message, the core, the attractive quality that makes great music so compelling. The CD players do it with digital and the phono stages most definitely do it with analogue – both bringing a natural immediacy, presence, and directness to proceedings. More recently, the 3100 line-stage has exhibited a similarly direct connection to the performance, but at least as far as Zanden’s amplification goes, the 8120 takes things to a whole new level, not that you are necessarily going to appreciate that from the word go. One of the things that makes all those classic push-pull stereo amps so appealing is their sense of purpose, the way they drive the performance forward, pulling you in, and carrying you with it. Put on the Zanden and it sounds almost reticent with none of that cock-sure punch or urgency that you might expect. Instead it sounds relaxed, unforced, almost limpid, with an unflustered air of calm composure. There is nothing overt or obviously impressive about the performance of the 8120, nothing to point a finger at or hang its character on. In fact, its most remarkable feature is its total lack of remarkable features.